Preston Historical Research and Restoration Fund

THE PRESTON HISTORICAL RESEARCH and RESTORATION FUND ( PHRRF) has been created to preserve the memory of the town of Preston (1875-1941) and its people, to restore the church and out buildings, protect and microfilm photographs, documents and provide for the studies pertaining to this unique Northern California town. We are working on designating the Free Pilgrims Church and surrounding community buildings and cemetary at Preston an Historical District. We are sponsored by the Institute for Traditional Studies, a non-profit educational corporation and have as our historical advisor, Dr. Daniel Markwyn Ph. D., Professor of History, Sonoma State University and Holly Hoods of the Healdsburg Museum.

Restoration of the Preston Church from the foundation to the roof plus the caretakers cabin and the surrounding trees.
This beautiful Victorian church with its elegant architecture, Seth-Thomas 8 day wind-up clock and glorious habitat will be put to use for the highest good of all.

Restoration of the Church in progress  

Lisa Edwin and a few neighbors have jacked up the church to level it and have the clock working and chiming on the hour once again. From Madame's time to Harry Shumway, Ernie Fischbach, Jim Perry, Jeremy and the Ellis' the clock has mostly run since it was installed in the late 1800's. WE ALL CAN REJOICE AT ITS RUNNING AGAIN., the church and cabin have been calked and painted to preserve the wood by the Ellis' and volunteers from the community. If you have money raising ideas or would like to host a benefit for the PHRRF. Please contact Deborah Fischbach at 707 937 2133.
The engineer's report is already done and paid for, carpenters are committed...(to volunteer your talents, contact Lisa and Edwin Ellis in Preston at 707 894 4445, 50 Geysers Rd., Cloverdale, CA. 95425).(Because of insurance issues we cannot accept volunteer workers right now but I'll leave Lisa and Edwin's contact information here).

You can make your donation using a credit card with a secure payment via paypal, ID=PHRRF. Try it today! Please include your address for a formal snail mail receipt. Or send your tax deductible donation to; "I.T.S. Preston Fund" (memo=church) 21512 Orr Springs Rd., UKIAH, CA 95482.
All contributors will receive a receipt, thank you and be added to our list of supporters with a finish date and a contact if you would like to visit The Preston Free Pilgrims Church.

Caretaker's cabin at the Preston Church
Renovated Caretaker's cabin at the Preston Church, Historically; "The Sunday School House"

Restoration starts with the trees; David Hardin has donated his time and expertise to trimming several large trees around the Preston Church and the Elmers house this September. He has taken a lot of dead wood and branches off a huge live oak that was overhanging the Church. The side is now opened up and more visible. David has also trimmed and shaped a towering eucalyptus next to the Elmers house. The majority of Preston buildings, including the Preston Mansion, were destroyed in a devastating fire in 1988. Lisa and Edwin Ellis, the Preston caretakers, safeguard the surviving buildings by maintaining firebreaks and keeping trees trimmed back.

More news, old and new

We at ITS are very excited about our "Williamson Act" designation for Open Space and Wildlife Habitat of Preston Church Property, it will be of help in our application for National Historical status. Mr. Brian Hunter, Region 3 manager of Department of Fish and Game states; "Because of low agricultural capability which prevents the realization of agricultural economy and high wildlife values, the property would appear to be a prime candidate for the Open Space and Wildlife provisions of the Williamson Act. We support such a designation."

This has come about and the Preston Church was designated a Sonoma County Landmark in 1988. Lisa and Edwin Ellis are living in the Elmers' House below the church, taking care of things and keeping the Seth-Thomas 8 day wind-up clock wound. The new owners of the church, the Elmers' House and the surrounding 100 acres are very supportive and excited about this project. Lisa Ellis has all the documentation collected and Holly Hoods M.A. and Associate Historian for Clark Historic Resource Consultants, is overseeing the application process.

A note from Holly Hoods 9/15/01; Landmark Status:

"My plan is to nominate the Preston Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places, not just the church, but all of the remaining buildings and sites (cemetery) associated with the Preston colony. In my thesis, I developed the necessary historic contexts to establish the district's significance, according to the National Register Criteria for Evaluation. My Master's thesis on Preston was completed December 2000 (for MA in Cultural Resources Management from Sonoma State University). Dan Markwyn was one of my three thesis advisors. The thesis is titled, "Preston: History of a Late-Nineteenth Century Religious Community in Sonoma County, California." It is 180 pages long with 35 photos and maps."

We at ITS have a copy in our archives.

Madam Emily Preston

The reason the Preston community was such a success can be found in the fact that Madam Preston was an immaculate housekeeper and this quality extended over all aspects of the community. She had a complete system that saw to the wants and needs of the individual, their physical as well as spiritual guidance, work and wages, entertainment, housing, etc. Madam Preston was the soul of pragmatism, she led by example and was highly respected. Her reputation as a skilled healer spread far and wide and many people who came to her for treatments ended up staying to form the Free Pilgrims Covenant. Madam Preston's message was direct; Your worth is measured by your deeds, not by your words, It's what's in your heart that matters. (Inspirational Message, 9/9/06, p.56) Hartwell and Emily Preston played an important role in the history of Sonoma County and the North Coast. The story of their lives is a rich legacy of history and their message is untarnished by time. Article by Lisa Ellis

Link to Photos page of Preston, community musicians, Emily and Hartwell Preston.

Documentary about the Preston Ranch and it's colonies through history, Madam Preston's Communitiy in the 1800's and the Musicians community in the 1970's.

A movie by Dan Ditzler 59 minutes

Emily Preston and Her Community of Faith

Perhaps one of the most intriguing women in Sonoma County history is Emily Preston, founder of "Preston," a health-oriented religious colony, over one hundred years ago. Life in the northern Sonoma County village centered around the Christian teachings and medical practice of the charismatic Mrs. Preston, widely and respectfully known as "Madam." The settlement had characteristics in common with three contemporaneous Sonoma County utopian colonies, but unlike Fountaingrove, Icaria Speranza and Altruria, Preston was not founded as an intentional community. While lacking a formal political structure, Preston nevertheless had a unity based on commitment to Emily Preston and to the shared ideals of her Religion of Inspiration.
After experiencing a spiritual epiphany in 1871, Emily Preston claimed to be able to literally perceive the words of God written on walls of light in front of her, and photographs of Heaven and Hell. This photography enabled her to perceive the true natures of things and to "diagnosticate cases at a distance." Emily Preston encouraged devout believers to build residences and summer cottages on the Preston land holdings, beginning in the mid-1880s. Many of these people dedicated their lives to living by her teachings. They moved to Preston to enjoy the advantages of her spiritual influence on a daily basis. They formed a close-knit community that welcomed the patients who came to Madam Preston for treatment. The village numbered about 150 people at its peak in 1895, and declined sharply after the death of its leader (and main employer) in 1909. It is difficult to precisely estimate the size of the Preston colony, since many devoted believers resided away from the community. Madam Preston's influence extended far beyond the Sonoma County settlement.


Emily Preston's practice flourished within the unregulated context of late 19th-century American medicine. In California from 1850-1900, the practice of medicine was open to anyone, subject only to liability for damages in a case of lack of skill on the part of the practitioner. It was not a crime, for example, to treat the sick with their consent and with honest intention, no matter how ignorant one was of the quality of the remedies used. This was how Madam Preston was able to diagnose illnesses through the mail and prescribe her own homemade medicines to patients without benefit of formal medical training or license, yet remain within the law. Preston neighbor Mary Mowbray recalled seeing "a lot of human wrecks" come to Madam Preston for help:
She always did her best and tried to make them well. She had a lot of sick people come to her that were given up by the medical doctors. She cured a lot of them. Some were hopeless. Nothing would help them. And if you were too poor to pay for her treatment, she would give it to you free.
Madam Preston's prescriptions included exercise, fresh air, mineral water, herbal tonics and medicinal spirits to build up strength. Her medical practice raised eyebrows, however, for her unorthodox method of diagnosis by mail, and especially for her unpleasant and uncomfortable "blister treatment."
The blister treatment was the fairly common, if drastic, practice in early medicine of applying irritants to the skin, in the belief that internal diseases could be thereby drawn to the surface of the body and dispelled. A widely prescribed therapy since the Middle Ages, it has fallen out of favor in the United States within the last 100 years. The cornerstone of Madam Preston's medical treatment was her liniment, a typical blistering agent. Some of her patients believed so strongly in the merits of the blister treatment that they were rarely without one or more of the running sores somewhere on their body. Wine bitters and delicious wine cordials were prescribed as crucial adjuncts to the blister treatment to keep up the patient's strength (and were, no doubt, greatly appreciated). Alcohol was otherwise prohibited to Preston colonists.
In 1903, Madam Preston began printing a "Price List of Medicines and How to Use Them." Besides liniment, wine bitters and wine cordial, the mainstays of her practice, the list of available medicines included: blood medicine (tonic), sweet oil, cough medicine, gin and garlic, fever paste, pile remedy, assafoetida pills, vagina balls, vagina wash, eye sponge, salve, fasting paste, wine bitters paste, and catarrh snuff. Blisters were recommended for a variety of ailments, including: heart, stomach, bladder, kidney, liver or lung trouble; rheumatism, and diphtheria.
Despite the discomfort of some of her remedies, hundreds of people trusted and followed Emily Preston's medical advice. Though she cultivated this influence, she did not want to overstep her abilities, and she did not claim to be infallible. On the strength of word-of-mouth advertisement alone, Emily Preston developed a thriving mail-order medicine business. The collection of papers that she left when she died comprised over 10,000 letters, the majority of which were written by people seeking medical advice or ordering medicine. Some mail arrived from Washington Territory, Oregon, Nevada and points further east, but the bulk came from the towns and hinterlands of northern California. Madam Preston's patients represented a cross-section of the California public, and included bank presidents, postal clerks, teachers, preachers, farm hands, sheriffs, millers, stockbrokers, shoemakers, editors, and politicians. Surviving letters from patients indicate that Emily Preston had a good deal of success in treating their ailments of body and spirit.


The Preston village was located 2 miles northeast of Cloverdale, at the northern edge of Sonoma County. The commercial center was situated just west of the Russian River, on the flat near the Northwestern Pacific Railroad tracks and the Preston depot. Businesses included a general store and post office, a livery stable, a lumber yard, a planing mill, and a water and soda bottling works. A county road led from the business center east to the residential district known as "Oak Mountain," where the church, school and the homes of the Prestons and the Preston colonists were located.
For more than a decade before there was ever a "Preston" town, there was a Preston ranch. The physical evolution of Preston as a community had its roots in the individual land purchases and consolidation of real estate by Hartwell L. Preston. H.L. Preston, a well-known attorney from Northern California, purchased a vineyard and stock ranch, 1- miles from Cloverdale. According to the Cloverdale Bee in June 1872, Preston's plans were to retire from the practice of law and devote his attention to stock raising and wine making. He and Emily Lathrop Appleton Burke, already a prominent faith healer in San Francisco, were married in Oakland in 1875. In their late middle age, they sought to retire from active public life and had the financial means to do so. After their marriage, the Prestons moved to Hartwell's Sonoma County ranch, but retirement did not prove to be easy. Emily Preston's patients continued to seek her out in person and written requests for aid poured in. The Prestons decided that Emily could not refuse to use her divine gift to help relieve suffering. Hartwell built a twenty- room hospital/boarding house to shelter patients whose illnesses required special care and close monitoring. Less severely ill clients boarded in Cloverdale or just south of Preston at Pine Grove resort, where Mrs. M. McConathy charged a modest weekly rent for her furnished cottages.


As Emily Preston's medical practice flourished, so did her spiritual influence. From the late 1870s through 1885, Emily and Hartwell Preston held religious services at their home. They asserted that all faiths can go to Heaven "if their hearts are right," because "truth has a voice that puts way all dogmas." The Prestons emphasized the importance of cultivating a direct personal relationship with God. They did not consider themselves to be ministers. In fact they advocated skipping the unnecessary middlemen--ministers and priests. The Prestons invited others to join them in "living religion" at Preston. The new faith came to be called the Religion of Inspiration, and its members became known as the "Volunteers of Heaven" or "Covenanters." In 1886, millionaire philanthopist Frederick Rindge, greatly helped by Madam Preston's treatment, built a church for the budding settlement to show his appreciation. Every week Emily Preston stood before the congregation and read the divine messages that she saw printed on the walls of light.


As might be expected, the Preston colony attracted a good deal of attention during its existence. Newspapers of the era provide not only descriptions of the growing village, but also reveal clues about attitudes toward Emily Preston and her followers. One reporter from the Sonoma Democrat wrote an article after a November 1886 visit to "Prophetess Preston": It is generally known that she performs her treatment from directions given from an unseen power, and which she terms as faith cure. Mrs. Preston has become very wealthy in a few years from her practice, as it is claimed she was comparatively without means when she came to Cloverdale. She is regarded by everyone acquainted with her as enveloped in an unfathomable mystery. She has patients from nearly every part of the civilized world. Most of them are very wealthy, and while she talks religion she is looking after the dollars and cents with a practical and businesslike manner.
There were, of course, a wide variety of responses to the Preston phenomenon. Numerous critics and skeptics dismissed Mrs. Preston's medical practice as "quackery," and her religious visions as either occult spiritualism, proof of a delusional mind, or altogether fake. Others downplayed the disconcertingly mystical aspects of the colony to emphasize the benevolence and charity practiced therein. A few, like the Sonoma Democrat reporter quoted above, observed a number of wealthy individuals at Preston, and made insinuations about Emily Preston's finances.
In November 1889, a reporter from the Healdsburg Enterprise remarked upon the unusual phenomenon of Preston. Noting that there were probably very few people in Sonoma County who had not heard stories--some true and more that were greatly exaggerated--about Madam Preston:
Who wields a strong influence over affairs in the northeastern corner of the county. . . While she is called an imposter and an ecclesiastical mountebank, there are not a few who ascribe to her a power all but divine. Those who would condemn her as an imposter on the strength of her pretense to divine inspiration and direct communication with the ruler of the universe, consider the good results of her teaching among those who believe, and are silent.
The people who lived at Preston felt themselves lucky to be part of a blessed enterprise. Devout in their faith and dwelling so close to their source of inspiration, they enjoyed a special reverence for their surroundings. Nathan Bowers, who grew up in the Preston colony, remembered: These people were obviously grateful for being alive, for being members of this community and especially for the privilege of living "here on this mountain."
Community life at Preston centered around spiritual, medical, musical and agricultural pursuits. It was a family-oriented community, with a number of school-aged children in the 1890s. The village had two orchestras. Fourth of July was the biggest holiday of the year, celebrated with a picnic, boating, bicycle races and games at Preston Lake. Christmas was also always festive, with special church services and a huge, decorated tree at the schoolhouse. Preston residents regularly entered the agricultural competitions, and participated in the displays and entertainments of the Citrus Fair. Summers were spent in spiritual retreat and contemplative enjoyment at Inland Camp at Preston Lake, a few miles north of the Preston residential district.


By the time of her death, the eccentric Emily Preston had won over most of her critics, and was a respected and benevolent figure, honored in Sonoma County society. Her passing on January 22, 1909 was front-page news and a tremendous blow to the community. The funeral was simple but impressive, with an enormous crowd in attendance. Describing the service, the Healdsburg Tribune paid editorial tribute to "Madam Preston, Founder of the town of Preston and of the Preston Sanitarium." The newspaper offered its highest praise, that: "Mrs. Preston has made the world happier and better for having lived in it. She rests from her labors and her good works do follow her."
After Emily Preston's death, the year-round residential community gradually diminished through the 1910s-1930s. Most writers have concluded that the community lacked commitment or cohesiveness without Madam Preston as the pivotal figure. Actually other, more mundane factors contributed significantly to the decline.
Some colonists were forced to leave Preston for purely economic reasons: they needed to live elsewhere to find work. Madam Preston was, after all, the major employer of the rural village, and without her industries the local economy suffered a huge blow. Not all of the Preston colonists were independently wealthy or retired. Cloverdale, the nearest town, two miles away, had few employment opportunities.
Preston also lost members through attrition. Many Preston colonists were older adults with preexisting health problems when they moved to Preston in the 1880s and 1890s. As these colonists aged and died in the early 1900s and 1910s, they were not replaced with new members. Another major loss was that the children of the Preston colony, who attended school in Preston in the 1880s and1890s, did not choose to remain in Preston as Volunteers. These children did not make the same commitment to the community as their parents did. The faithful continued to hold church services in the Preston Church through the early 1940s.
Emily Preston's role within the Religion of Inspiration was as both founder and prophetess. The founder of a religious sect is typically a dominant personality around which the religion is based. The prophet/ess is usually the one to convey holy messages to the group. Emily Preston filled both roles within the Preston Church. As a consequence, however, she was irreplaceable. After her death, her religion gradually faded from practice. Only a handful of buildings survive today to commemorate the significance of the Preston colony, including the church and several colonist residences on Geysers Road in Cloverdale. The loss of most of the Preston buildings in 1988 to a devastating fire underscores the importance of recognizing, recording and preserving the remaining historic buildings.
Articles by Holly Hoods
Bowers, Nathan, "Emily Preston: the Madam," 1967 [Unpublished manuscript on file at Healdsburg Museum].
Healdsburg Enterprise, 20 November 1889.
Healdsburg Tribune, 29 January 1909.
Mowbray, Mary, "My Memories," 1949 [Unpublished manuscript on file at Healdsburg Museum].
Payne, Janice "Go Tell It On the Mountain: an Account of Madam Emily Preston and Prefatorial Note on the Preston Papers" (Sonoma State University: M.A. Thesis 1976).
Santa Rosa Press Democrat, 29 January 1909.
Preston, Emily, "Creed of the Free Pilgrim's Covenant Church," [Undated pamphlet] in Preston papers, Healdsburg Museum.
"Price List of Medicines and How to Use Them," 1903.
Sonoma Democrat, 20 March 1886; 25 September 1886
Spector, Benjamin M.D., "Guideposts in the History of American Medicine," History of American
Medicine: a Symposium, Felix Marti-Ibanez, ed. (New York : MD Publications, 1988).
Thanks to Adrian Praetzellis, Daniel Markwyn and Susan Clark, my M.A. thesis committee. (And to Lisa Ellis, unsung committee member)

Edwin, Ernie, Michael the jeweler, Ed, Catana, now deceased Bob Thomas and  Dave Ricker, Elliott Gould and some others in the shadow that I cannot make out Trent Anderson photo 1978 Preston Church
Trent Anderson photo 1978 Preston Church with clock and 70's era community with Ed Lynch in tie, Catana Sanchez, Ernie Fischbach with Jeremy's head above and behind him, Michael the jeweler Wallace, Don Brown far right, far left Dave Ricker and Bob Thomas(both now deceased), Elliott Gould, Edwin Ellis and some others in the shadow that we cannot make out, is it you? write us.

More information on the Preston Community

The Healdsburg Museum curates the Preston papers, a collection of approximately 1,500 original documents from Emily and Hartwell Preston. Healdsburg City Museum, Holly Hoods - Research Curator, Healdsburg Museum, 221 Matheson Street., Healdsburg, CA 95448. (707) 431-3325

PRESTON File, Cloverdale Public Library

The Press Democrat www archives.

The Institute For Traditional Studies, Preston Historical Research Dept. Photos of Preston, commmunity musicians, Emily and Hartwell Preston.

The Institute For Traditional Studies Homepage

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